It’s been over a month since we posted our article about plastic in the sea and issued the plastic free challenge, and during this time nobody has got in touch to ask how it’s going – but we’re going to tell you anyway!
During this plastic-free month we have had several people contact us to say that there’s no hope for humanity – or words to that effect. One friend told us that if you let such things as pollution, global warming, and war get under your skin you’ll just end up feeling like slitting your wrists. “Just live for the day”, he said. Another told us that he came to sea to get away from all this pessimistic talk. So far as he is concerned, his life is clean and green, and what everybody else does is none of his concern anymore; he’s washed his hands of society.
Well, I can understand this kind of thinking, but I can’t go along with it.
If I just adopt an attitude of “I’m doing the best that I can; sod the rest of the world,” the world is still going to come crashing down around my ears. And knowing that it wasn’t my fault isn’t going to be any comfort whatsoever.
As for the idea that we’ll be okay because we’ve opted out, and bought a boat or a remote piece of farmland – this one doesn’t work either. Our boats and smallholdings are stuck on the same planet as the one being trashed by Exxon, Gazprom, Monsanto, et alia; so if we let them drive the thing onto the rocks we’ll all be going down together.
It seems to me that a large part of our problem is generated by denial. They say that seeing is believing, so perhaps that’s why we have trouble believing in things which we don’t see.
Take death, for instance. I’m over 50 and yet I’ve never seen a dead body – or at any rate, not a human one. As a result, some deep, down part of me still believes that death is a fantasy; like the unicorn and the fairies. If a doctor were to tell me that I had cancer I would probably go into denial.
“Me! Die? Impossible!”
Yes, I know it’s crazy, but I’m told that that’s the typical reaction to receiving news of one’s imminent demise. And I think it may be the reason why we can’t seem to get our act together over global warming and planetary pollution. Sure, it’s getting hotter every year. Sure, our scientists are ranting and raving and telling us that we’re doomed. But, hey – look around you; is anyone else panicking? Is anyone else changing the way they live their life?
Surely, we say to ourselves, if anything really bad were happening then our governments would legislate to stop Gazprom and Exxon and Shell from drilling and fracking and getting up all that oil for us to burn… Wouldn’t they?
Surely, the CEOs of those companies would see sense and say, “Enough is enough”… Wouldn’t they?
Surely, if humanity were really in danger there’d be laws to stop us from driving cars and eating beef and buying plastic… Wouldn’t there?
Surely, it’s all just a bad dream…? Or maybe it’s just a hoax. Yes, that’s it: it’s probably just the media throwing histrionics.
And even if it isn’t – even if it’s real – they’re bound to find a cure… Aren’t they?
For as long as we remain in denial we can’t treat this deadly illness. For as long as we’re in denial we’ll carry on taking our fix: we’ll keep on running our engines, and flying, and turning up the heater instead of donning another pull-over, and we’ll keep on shopping for plastic and tossing it in the bin, the land-fill, and the sea.
So, we need to face up to the truth, and whether you like it or not I’m going to talk some more about our environmental crisis. I hope that you will stay on the page, because this time it won’t be all bad news. This time we have a couple of plastic-free tips, learnt during our month of abstinence: a couple of discoveries we’d like to share, which will not just enable you to do without plastic; they will actually improve your way of life! – albeit in rather minor ways.
Our month without plastic began on December 1st – and before I go any further I should make clear that it was not a total success: we did not manage to be entirely plastic and petroleum free.
On the 2nd December I went shopping and, amongst the sundry purchases, brought home one thin, clear plastic bag and a one litre plastic bottle.
The bottle was the receptacle for a litre of vinegar.
Would a glass bottle have been better, environmentally?
Well, glass is much heavier, and so its transport costs more fuel and causes more carbon emissions, but its manufacture uses less power and – crucially – it degrades safely. 500 years after you’ve dropped it in the sea, a glass bottle is sand, whereas a plastic bottle, from the moment of its manufacture, is in the process of being reduced into toxic waste. As it falls to pieces in the sunlight it will be reduced into ever smaller poisonous particles, and throughout its whole life it will be gradually shedding phthalates, antimony, and anti-bacterial agents. And those poisonous particles and toxic molecules will be imbibed by fish and plants and birds.
In a country where glass is recycled the answer would surely be, yes – glass is best; but Argentina doesn’t really go in for recycling. In fact, Argentina doesn’t really go in for glass at all (except in the case of beer, which is generally sold in the traditional manner, in returnable glass bottles).
There were no glass bottles of vinegar in either of the two supermarkets which we use. So, the choice was between a plastic bottle of vinegar and no vinegar.
Thinking back, I probably made the wrong choice, because I can live without vinegar, whereas none of us is going to be able to live in a world made totally toxic by plastic molecules.
As for the plastic bag – this was forced on me by Daniel, the man from whom we’ve been buying our veg. Although we’ve been trying, for more than a month, to educate him, Daniel still hasn’t got the idea. In fact, he probably just thinks that foreigners are nuts.
“No plastico!” I cry, waving my cotton bag under his nose. Then I point at the pavement and into the gutter, where the rubbish lies like fallen leaves. “Menos plastico; menos basura!”
“Si!” he agrees, cheerily. But the cotton bag weighs more than the thin plastic one, and Daniel doesn’t want to diddle me. He’s a very nice chap.
To counteract this problem we’ve taken to bringing along our second-hand plastic bags – (I have a locker stuffed full of plastic bags which have managed to sneak themselves aboard) – and I’d already used four of my own tatty specimens when Daniel snatched up the lettuce and kindly shoved it into a nice new one.
I wish I spoke better Spanish and could explain in detail, for if we can’t get the message across to other people, how can we stop the ball from rolling? This one man probably hands out hundreds of plastic bags each day, and all of them will end up in a landfill or in the sea.
For as long as they remain in the dark, our eccentric behaviour just puzzles the Argentinian market vendors: “No plastic unless it’s her own plastic. Hmmm… These foreigners are definitely bonkers.”
“Are you from the United States?” Daniel asks me.
“Yes,” I lie.
Shopping again… because I forgot to buy milk. Without milk I can’t make yoghurt and kefir, and without those two I can’t make cream cheese. Since we don’t buy meat or fish, dairy protein is fairly important – but is it more important than the environment…?
Milk comes from cows. In some parts of the world it might also come from goats and sheep, and in others it might even come from camels and horses; but there aren’t any of those creatures around here. Argentina and Uruguay are big on beef, and beef only. Half cows are Uruguay’s biggest export. (Don’t ask me which half; I don’t even want to think about it.)
Beef production is one of the worst industries in the world so far as the creation of greenhouse gases is concerned – meat production is said to be responsible for a whopping 19% of emissions! – and, of course, dairy cows do just as much farting as the ones destined to become sirloin, rump, and brisket. So… should an environmentalist still be buying milk?
That’s a difficult one to answer.
Worse (perhaps) than its origins is the fact that milk, in this part of the world, invariably comes in a plastic-lined tetra-brik or a plastic bag. The powdered stuff comes in an aluminised plastic bag which is inside a cardboard box.
Well, on the third day of this supposedly plastic-free month I bought four plastic bags of milk.
I also bought four small plastic sachets of bicarbonate of soda.
”Isn’t there some other way that they could package this stuff?” I asked myself. “How did my grandmother buy bicarbonate of soda?”
In a tin, came the answer. Or in an unlined cardboard pot. Either of these two would be better than a plastic bag or a plastic pot, but such old-fashioned packaging is not to be found on the supermarket shelves in this part of the world.
Lastly, I bought one kilogram of raisins in a polythene bag. They could have been packaged in paper, perhaps… but they weren’t. Around here they’re usually packaged in 250g disposable plastic pots – the kind of pots whose lid has to be broken off, making them utterly useless for anything else.
So, looked at from a glass-is-half-full angle, one thin polythene bag was actually a saving.
But looked at from a half-empty standpoint, it was one more piece of plastic which is now trapped in the biosphere, waiting to be ingested, again and again and again,; one more bundle of toxic molecules eternally poisoning life, until the time when nature evolves to take the shape of a web of creatures which thrive on phthalates, PCBs, and polyvinylacetate.
To my credit, on this same day I also disdained to buy pasta in plastic bags, on the grounds that we can make our own.
And I chose a packet of maté (a South American tea) which specifically advertised itself as being sold in a brown paper packet (as opposed to plasticised paper, or bleached white paper).
I didn’t buy cooking oil, because I couldn’t bring myself to pay more than twice as much for a brand sold in a glass bottle.
And I bought ice cream in cones rather than accept the proffered polystyrene tub. I also had to refuse the pretty-coloured disposable plastic spoon. Well, who eats a cone with a spoon, anyway!
On this same day, Nick bought three watch batteries in a plastic blister-pack, there being no other way of buying such things.
He was also given a half-litre bottle of mineral water. This is something which we would not dream of ever buying, because when you drink from a plastic bottle you drink plastic molecules… but having asked a friend for a glass of water Nick found this item plonked in his hands.
In penance for all this harm we recovered two one gallon plastic cans from the rubbish drifting past the boat and cut off their tops so that we could use them as storage tubs (one for line; one for all the bars of soap and sundry other stuff which kicks around in the bathroom).
Today we committed five more sins and tacitly approved the creation of five more items which will remain, forever, in the environment. To wit, we bought:-
The polythene wrapping from a packet of loo roll.
A plastic SIM card for the phone – with lots of pointless paper and plastic packaging, too.
And we bought a one litre plastic bottle… Yes, I had to have cooking oil, and I can’t afford the fancy stuff.
Or can I…?
What price a clean, safe world? Perhaps it would be truer to say that I can’t really afford not to buy the expensive stuff, in the glass bottle.
We also acquired a CD – which is polycarbonate/lexan – in a polythene wrapper. This was a case of aiding and abetting, rather than genuine culpability, because – again – it was given to us.
And so, too, were the 3 litres of Chockfast epoxy resin which were going begging after a job on another, very much fancier yacht. Epoxy is a plastic, of course; but by collecting another fellow’s cast-offs we saved the stuff from going in the bin. And we also saved ourselves a lot of money.
Today we refused the ice cream man’s polystyrene tubs (available in five sizes, with matching polystyrene lids) and brought along our own wooden bowls and our own spoons.
Polystyrene is one of the worst things ever invented, and it does a lot of harm in the ocean.
The ice cream man was a bit put out, but as we were his only customers that morning he eventually shrugged his shoulders and dolloped out the ice cream. “Ruddy foreigners!” I seemed to hear him thinking.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh… ah… We’re Irish,” I lied.
We also accumulated another plastic bag from a veggie vendor – a very nice Bolivian woman who was not so much ill-educated as wholly uneducated. By now we’d learnt the phrases for global warming and greenhouse gases, but she didn’t appear to have heard of either of them. I was reminded of a fellow we met in Spain who knew all about the evils of the Mar Plastico greenhouses ruining the south-eastern corner of that country: “They’re terrible” he said. “They pump out gases!”
After I’d refused three more bags Miss Bolivia asked where we came from, and this time I owned up. But she’d never heard of England.
“It’s in Europe,” I explained.
“Ah! Is that in the United States?”
“It might as well be.” And I might as well hope for a flying pig as expect this lady to understand my garbled explanation of why I don’t want a plastic bag. “No quiero ver plastico en el mar!”
The sugar comes in plastic, too, in this part of the world. Why is that? Why can’t South America use paper bags for its sugar, like Europe does? Paper bags don’t tend to burst, and plastic ones do – almost invariably – so it makes no sense at all.
One plastic packet of sugar was acquired from our Bolivian friend, and – “No!” Get that thing away from me! “No bolsa plastica, gracias!” See here: I have a cloth bag. The sugar can go inside that.
Today I successfully refused all bags at the vegetable market. Daniel is getting the hang of things now, so it’s no longer a hassle.
On the debit side, I brought home six more plastic bags of milk and two 5 litre plastic bottles of olive oil.
And Nick rocked up, looking very shame-faced, with a pint-sized disposable plastic cup in his hand! Oh, sin of sins! “What the….?”
He’d been strolling round a food fair while I shopped and, coming across a stall which sold imitation Guinness, suddenly realised that he was very thirsty. “It didn’t occur to me that they were going to pour me my drink in this thing!”
Experienced plastic-free practitioners carry their own set of crockery and cutlery with them wherever they wander. And why not? When you think about it, it’s the obvious way to go. In a few years’ time we’ll probably all be doing it, because the fast-food industry will have been banned from throwing away a million tonnes of plastic every year. “Forgotten your cup, Sir? No problem, I can sell you one. Would you prefer porcelain or stainless steel?”
On this day we also bought three tins of poly-something paint. If we lived in a house we would use linseed oil and so forth, but we’ve tried this on the boat and it simply doesn’t work. The sea is a tough environment and things painted with shellac, or with concoctions containing beeswax and carnuba, deteriorate as fast as if they hadn’t been treated.
Tip Numero Uno – Shampoo without the sham
On the plus side, this is the day on which we finally got round to experimenting with shampoo substitutes.
There are lots of reasons for not buying shampoo and conditioner.
Firstly, it comes in a tough plastic bottle of the sort which is more or less useless afterwards.
Secondly, it contains all kinds of chemicals, such as phthalates and methylisothiazoline, which we ought not to be dumping in the sea. These petroleum derivatives are xeno-oestrogens and nerve toxins – they cause gender-bending and reproductive problems in sealife and birds – and if we put them down the drains and into the rivers and into the ocean then we’ll have to eat them, someday, because they will have entered the food chain.
You don’t want that stuff in your eyes and mouth, either… that’s the third reason.
And fourthly, shampoo and conditioner contain palm oil derivatives such as sodium lauryl sulphate (a detergent) and cocamidopropyl betaine (a foam booster). The purchase of products containing palm oil derivatives aids and abets in the destruction of precious rainforest and in the slaughter of forest-dwelling species such as the orang-utan. (If you want to know more about this, I recommend a visit to Say No to Palm Oil.)
Tip Two Toothpaste: (We’ll come back to Numero Uno in a mo)
If you search, you’ll find a plenitude of on-line advice about shampoo substitutes. Most folks recommend bicarbonate of soda.
Well, we already use bicarbonate of soda in place of toothpaste (which is another big no-no, partly because of the plastic tube, but also because it’s chock full of stuff that you don’t want to swallow). Before toothpaste was invented people used to simply dip the brush in a tray of bicarbonate of soda, but having grown up using paste, and having become accustomed to that feel, we mix ours with a little bit of cooking oil. Coconut oil is the best vehicle, because it actually good for your teeth, preventing cavities – or so they say; but we can’t get it here. We also add a few drops of peppermint oil, for flavour.
Bicarbonate of soda is a very good scouring agent and certainly whitens teeth, over time, but as a shampoo…? Rub it into my hair…?
Well, if you never try then you never know; so I did – and it’s amazing! Even as I rubbed the stuff in I could feel my hair becoming squeaky clean. I can’t think why I didn’t start using it a year ago! In fact, I can’t imagine how we were ever conned into thinking that we needed shampoo! It’s all a sham and a scam and a shame.
How do you use the bicarbonate of soda? Well, you just wet your hair, wet the powder a little (I need about a teaspoon of powder), and then you rub it into your scalp. Then you rinse it out again.
If you’re the sort of person who likes to wash your hair everyday then I suggest that you take it easy and don’t use the super-powered bicarb every day. Between times you can just use water. Or if you like a bit of variety, try an egg. (Yup! Seriously: a raw egg. DON’T use hot water to wash it out, or you’ll have an omelette on your scalp.)
Because my hair is apt to be dry I only wash it once a fortnight. And even then, I sometimes have to feed it half a cupful of olive oil beforehand. But the rest of the family have different hair types – Nick’s is straight and very fine; Caesar’s gets greasy quickly – and we’re all completely sold on bicarbonate of soda. I don’t see us ever buying shampoo again, and I reckon that when the whole world knows about this kitchen cupboard fix the share price for Johnson and Johnson and Palmolive will plummet.
Conditioner? Who needs conditioner anyway? It’s a fairly new-fangled idea. When I was kid I’d never even heard of it.
But if you must have conditioner, vinegar works well. Don’t rinse it out. (No, it doesn’t smell; not after your hair has dried.)
Today’s tally was:
Two polythene bags of milk
Two aluminised plastic bags of milk powder
And four plastic bags of oats. Oats used to come in cardboard boxes. What was wrong with that?
Absolutely nothing, and it’s time we found a way to persuade the food companies to back-track.
In order to persuade our suppliers to use packaging derived from sustainable sources we need to vote with our purses, as the saying is. Well, there was only one brand of oats, so the choice was between buying it or going without breakfast, but I had more luck at the bakers.
Argentinean bakers always want to wrap the bread in plastic bags, but today I was using a different shop and when I turned down the bag and proffered my cloth one the shop-keeper said, “That’s good. We’ve been telling our regular customers to bring their own bags, and some of them do now.”
Well, hallelujah! So, somebody in this litter-strewn country does understand about menos plastico!
We also bought sticky buns – an item which doesn’t far too well in a cloth bag; or rather, the bag doesn’t fare too well – but our new friend was on the ball and had paper bags at the ready.
Every other shop in this little town is a bakery, but now that we have discovered this one none of the others will be getting our custom!
Six more bags of milk.
Eight bags of milk
Two aluminised bags of milk powder
Three more sachets of bicarbonate of soda, for our hair and teeth, and for scouring pots and pans…
Wonderful stuff, it is, that bicarbonate of soda! But I must seek out a bulk source which, at the very least, uses a large plastic pot which can be re-used. Our spices are all stored in pots which once contained honey or treacle, and our beans are stored in old coca-cola bottles scavenged from bars, bins, and the seashore – so I hardly need to be buying another pot – but in this part of the world I’m unlikely to find the stuff packaged in a tin or a cardboard box.
Today we blew it. The temperature was in the 40s (over 100° Farenheit) with not a breath of wind, and since it was Boxing Day we decided to treat ourselves to ice cream. There’s a shop in town which delivers it, so we gave them a call, but – of course! – it arrived packaged up in polystyrene pots.
This was definitely the greatest sin in our supposedly plastic-free month. Polystyrene is just about the worst kind of plastic to have kicking around in the environment; and the pots are still sitting in the galley, giving me a guilty conscience every time I glance their way. Mea culpa! Mea culpa!
On this, the last day of the month, we bought eight more bags of plastic-wrapped milk.
So, the grand total was:
30 x 1lt plastic bags of milk, which are of virtually no use, second-hand (albeit, I’m saving them, in case I think of a use…).
7 x clear polythene bags (including 4 from bags of oats) all of which will be reused.
2 x 1lt plastic bottles, both equipped with pop off lids, so that they are of no use, second hand.
7 x small plastic sachets (of bicarbonate of soda) all of which ended up in the bin, in the land-fill… and so one, down the line, marching inexorably towards the food chain.
1 x plastic disposable cup (now in temporary use as a plant pot… but not destined to endure for long).
2 x polystyrene pots
4 x aluminised plastic bags (which have been retained for possible use as reflectors in a solar heating project. They also make good fishing lures, if you still feel up to eating fish which swim in the toxic soup of our own making…).
1 x small plastic blister pack
1 x polythene wrapping from loo rolls
1 x CD
3 x 250ml of poly-based paint
(and 3Lt of epoxy which we saved from the dustbin)
I should add that during this time we didn’t use any diesel or petroleum – we didn’t run the engine and nor did we use the buses; we travelled under sail, under oars, by bike, or on foot – but we did burn gas in cooking our meals. When there’s plenty of wind and sun we boil our water in an electric kettle, but in order to escape from dependence on the stove we will need to build a solar cooker. And even then… well, we shall see…
We didn’t succeed in our objective of living a normal life in an entirely plastic-free way, but we have learnt a lot. We’ve always shopped mindfully – we can spend hours scrutinising packets for mention of soya and maize (which is all GMO, in this part of the world), or for traces of palm oil, animal fats, gelatine, and so forth; and we’ve always aimed to avoid buying plastic-wrapped stuff – but trying to abolish it altogether from our shopping basket has made us still more aware of the problem.
And we’ve got one more trick which we would like to pass along, concerning plastic-free pasta.
We generally eat quite a lot of pasta, because it’s cheap, but this month we didn’t buy any because it was all plastic wrapped. I said that we would make our own; well, we have been known to do this, but it’s a rather time consuming business and we didn’t get round to it. Instead, we learnt how to make something called spätzle (pronounced spetzler).
Spätzle is an Austrian dish which looks like pasta and tastes like pasta – only better! It’s made from a stiff pancake batter (flour, eggs, milk, and oil) which is then pushed through a slotted tray – or through a coarse grater or a wide-gauge colander – into boiling water. Our Austrian friends plonked the cooked pasta into a frying pan, topped it with cheese and onion, and fried it, but you can also eat it in the straightforward way, with a sauce; and you can also fry it with an egg spread around over the top. All in all, it’s so good that I doubt if we’ll be buying pasta again. Or any rate, not until someone starts packaging it in chlorine-free paper bags!
At the end of the day, when I look around and see the smoke going up into the air from the ships and the ridiculous waste of electricity from a million lights looming over a city – when I see the rubbish floating by; when I think about the cars spewing out their fumes – then I begin to think, “My trivial little effort is pathetic. My effort is pointless and stupid.”
But it isn’t.
Every little effort counts, because it is by little steps that we will scale the seemingly impossible mountain and reach the summit: a clean world, where all beings can live their inter-related lives in safety.